Around the country parents are trying to stifle what children learn. This time it’s in South Carolina.

June 15th, 2023 by Tom Lynch

In the 1920s and 30s, Joseph Goebbels demonstrated to the world how easy it was to mold the thinking of the youth of Germany. His mantra of “a lie becomes the truth if you say it loud enough and often enough” co-opted an entire generation. He was able to convince university students that things he and Hitler labeled as “unGerman”  were evil and had to be eradicated from education.

On 10 May 1933, about a month after the Nazis took power and created the Third Reich, and at the instigation of Goebbels, German university students organized an “act against unGerman spirit” in nineteen university towns across the country. They compiled a list of “unGerman” books, seized them from all the libraries they could find, piled them up in public squares, and set them all alight. Goebbels joined the students at the Berlin burning, the biggest, telling them they were “doing the right thing in committing the evil spirit of the past to the flames.” One after another, books were thrown onto the funeral pyre of intellect.

We’re not burning books in America — yet, but we sure are banning them.

A case in point dropped this morning when Judd Legum’s Popular Information chronicled the story of South Carolina teacher Mary Wood, who teaches English Literature at Chapin High School in Chapin, South Carolina.

Wood teaches a variety of honors courses, including Advanced Placement (AP) English Language and Composition. She has been teaching this AP course for the last decade and getting superb results from her students. A passing score in the course is a 3; 82.6% of her students achieved a 3 or higher, as opposed to 55.7% of students in the rest of the nation. The test is given by the College Board, the same organization that administers the annual SATs.

AP courses are not normal high school courses; they go deeper than high school and require more analysis and critical thinking, the kind of thinking one would find in a college course. In AP courses, students are presented reading material aimed at expanding their minds more broadly than traditional high school texts.

As Legum writes in his article:

No one is required to enroll in an AP class. The course description, created by the College Board, specifically notes that the course involves the thoughtful consideration of controversial issues, including racial issues:


Issues that might, from particular social, historical, or cultural viewpoints, be considered controversial, including references to ethnicities, nationalities, religions, races, dialects, gender, or class, may be addressed in texts that are appropriate for the AP English Language and Composition course. Fair representation of issues and peoples may occasionally include controversial material. Since AP students have chosen a program that directly involves them in college-level work, participation in this course depends on a level of maturity consistent with the age of high school students who have engaged in thoughtful analyses of a variety of texts. The best response to controversial language or ideas in a text might well be a question about the larger meaning, purpose, or overall effect of the language or idea in context.

In February 2022, Mary Wood assigned Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoire Between the World and Me as a supplemental text to her AP students. Coates wrote the book as a letter to his teen-aged son about being Black in America. The book won the 2015 National Book Award and was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. Wood told her school what she was doing, and the school ordered Coates’s book for her students. She also assigned reading material by Malcolm Gladwell and none other than Donald Trump.

No one complained.

In February 2023, she once again assigned Between the World and Me as supplemental reading for her AP course. This time was different.

As she did in 2022, she showed two short videos at the beginning of the course. One describes the consequences of wealth disparities and housing discrimination on marginal groups and uses a track meet as a metaphor; the other describes how Redlining can disadvantage Black Americans.

As any good teacher would, Mary Wood asked her students to discuss and think about the arguments Coates makes in his book. A writing assignment asks, “What is Coates’ primary argument about education and its role in equality? Is he justified in this stance? Explain.”

This year, two students complained, and one of them went directly to the School Board, not the teacher. Which is where newly-elected School Board member Elizabeth Barnhardt enters the plot.

Barnhardt was endorsed by Moms 4 Liberty, a far-right group responsible for many of the book complaints around the nation that have resulted in numerous books being banned in red states, or taken off library shelves while state “investigators” determine if they are suitable for the classroom.

In the student’s email to Barnhardt, they wrote that the videos “made me feel uncomfortable” and “ashamed to be Caucasian.” Moreover, the videos “portrayed an inaccurate description of life from past centuries that she (Wood) is trying to resurface.” It is “antiquated history” the student felt “too heavy to discuss.”

The other complaining student also wrote an email in which they also claimed to be “incredibly uncomfortable, and “in shock” that the videos were shown.

This second student also wrote “a teacher talking about systemic racism is illegal in South Carolina” and that Coates was “a Malcolm X fanatic” who believes “everything that is bad happened stems from the ‘whiteness’ of America.” Finally, the high school student accused Wood of trying to “subtly indoctrinate our class under the guise that she is trying to ‘get us to think about different points of view.'”

The upshot? As Legum wrote this morning:

Chapin High School sided with the two students and Barnhardt. On February 6, Wood was called into a meeting with the Assistant Principal of Instruction, Melissa Magee. According to a “script” provided to Magee and released pursuant to a document request, Wood was told that assigning Coates’ book was illegal and “we need you to cease this assignment.” The removal of Coates’ book was first reported by The State.

As has happened elsewhere with school book complaints, the decision to remove the Coates book did not follow written policy, which required the complaint to have been made in writing to the superintendent and reviewed by a special committee. Moreover, the policy stipulated that the book under review should have stayed in use until the review was completed. None of that happened.

Whether you throw books you don’t like onto an intellectual funeral pyre or simply ban students from reading them, the result is the same.

And what about the issue of the videos and the Coates book making the students “incredibly uncomfortable?”

At times, the study of history is supposed to make us uncomfortable.

Studying the French Terror of 1792/93 is supposed to make us uncomfortable. Studying the Spanish Inquisition is supposed to make us uncomfortable. Studying what Christopher Columbus did to the indigenous populations he encountered is supposed to make us uncomfortable. Studying the Insurrection of January 6th, the downing of the Twin Towers, and, yes, the Jim Crow America Coates describes should make us very uncomfortable.

But that does not mean we should not study all of it. Why? Because, as has been shown repeatedly throughout history, if we don’t learn from all of that, we’ll do it all again in a new and improved way.

What happened to Mary Wood and her AP Class is a harbinger of a future we should do all in our power to avoid. Her students wrote they were being “indoctrinated.” They were, but not by Mary Wood.